On September 8, 2011, the Saban Center at Brookings hosted a policy forum with Bilal Saab, Visiting Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and Andrew Exum, Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. The discussion focused on the August 2011 Saban Center Analysis Paper, The Next War, authored by Saab and Nicholas Blanford, and addressed the way in which the Arab Spring is affecting the political and security situation in the Levant.On September 8, 2011, the Saban Center at Brookings hosted a policy forum with Bilal Saab, Visiting Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and Andrew Exum, Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. The discussion focused on the August 2011 Saban Center Analysis Paper, The Next War, authored by Saab and Nicholas Blanford, and addressed the way in which the Arab Spring is affecting the political and security situation in the Levant.
The discussion came five years after the 2006 summer war between Israel and Hezballah. Saab began by noting that neither Israel nor Hezballah wants to fight another war, but both sides have been upgrading their capabilities and suspicions between the two sides have never been higher. While the military upgrades are meant to deter a conflict, Saab said he is worried that the next war will be caused by an “accidental trigger” and spiral out of control.
Hezballah has undergone a tripling or quadrupling of its recruitment, and it is planning to take the fight into Israeli territory with missile strikes and troop insertions. Hezballah’s aggressive weapons procurement has increased the group’s defensive and offensive capabilities. Its air defenses will be a threat to Israeli helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and its upgraded signals intelligence capabilities (built with Iranian assistance) will provide information on Israeli military activity and targets. The next war will be larger in scope than the last and neither side will fight to return to the status quo ante: both sides will go “all the way,” potentially changing the balance of power in the region.
At the same time, Saab noted, Hezballah faces domestic and regional pressures. In particular, there is little support in Lebanon for another conflict and the weakening of the Asad regime pose challenges to the group. A new Syrian leadership—aligned with Sunni interests in the region—would not serve as a conduit for Iranian weapons, nor would it provide the Shi’i group with political backing.
Andrew Exum responded to this by noting a paradox: Hezballah has never been so powerful in Lebanon, but at the same time it has never felt so vulnerable and had such a narrow political base of support. He continued to say that deterrence along the Israel-Lebanon border has worked thus far. From a Lebanese perspective, every Israeli operation since 1993 has been more destructive than the last. Thus, Israel’s “Dahiya doctrine”—the threat to level the Shi’i-dominated suburbs of Beirut in the next conflict—is actually a credible deterrent. (Exum said that actually carrying out the Dahiya doctrine would be incredibly problematic—the political cost to Israel would be high at a time when Israel is already isolated regionally and internationally.) On the other side, Hezballah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, has threatened in any future conflict to send rockets deep into Israel, targeting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. This has given Israeli leaders pause. However, Exum argued that the steps necessary to maintain this deterrence may be a trigger to war: for Hezballah’s threat to be credible, it needs to stock mid- to long-range rockets; Israel may see this activity as crossing a red line and may consider the procurement itself as a casus belli.
With the Asad regime tottering next door to Lebanon, some participants wondered if Hezballah would come to the aid of its patron and asked how Hezballah would be affected by the collapse of the Syrian government. Saab responded by saying that Hezballah is not in a position to try to save Asad, and if his regime crumbled, the political atmosphere in Beirut would be very different and challenging for the group. Hezballah would attempt to mobilize Lebanese society to support its agenda, but would have little to offer non-Shi’i Lebanese. At the same time, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is hanging over Hezballah, and if its domestic political rivals play that card at the right moment, it could be a blow to the group.
Exum disagreed that Syria is critical to Hezballah’s survival. The group’s center of gravity is with the Lebanese Shi’ah, he argued, so while Syria’s collapse would make things more difficult, the group already has contingency plans. Specifically, it has fallback options for weapons procurement in case its weapons supply lines from Syria are disrupted. Both Saab and Exum agreed that if Syria were taken out of play, the next Hezballah-Israel conflict would be more limited, partly because, as Saab noted, rearmament mid-conflict would be more difficult for Hezballah.
Exum closed the discussion by talking about measures that are in place that can prevent a war from breaking out. He said that the large size of United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) makes it a physical deterrent to cross-border violence and he complimented the role it plays as an intermediary between the Israel Defense Forces and the Lebanese Armed Forces. This is an important function because it can calm tensions before they spiral out of control. Saab agreed but said there is a need for more active measures to decrease accidental escalations between Hezballah and Israel. Exum offered that the United States has the ability to exert diplomatic pressure (particularly in relation to Israel) to halt a conflict. He compared the way in which the Clinton administration responded to Operation Accountability in 1993 and Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996. U.S. support for Israeli operations was critical to the length of the conflicts in both.
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